Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
21 Feb

Why You Should Eat and Drink High-Cacao Dark Chocolate

dark chocolateYes, I know, I know. That title isn’t exactly comforting. I hate giving you guys bad news, seeing as how you make this website possible, and I hate making unpopular recommendations like “eat more butter” or “get some sun” or “drink a glass of red wine,” but I have to stick to the truth here, even if it hurts. And the truth is that you should probably be eating dark chocolate on a semi-regular basis because the stuff is pretty dang good for you. Before you log out, never to return again, give me a minute to explain myself:

You were kids once. Your parents probably forced you to finish your overcooked, mushy, bland veggies or wash your hands and finish your homework – or some other routine unpleasantry – “for your own good,” and that’s what I’m doing here. Dark chocolate is healthy. It may be awful, terrible, and disgusting, but it contains some really good things that have some remarkable effects on various markers of health. So, yeah, eat your chocolate. Finish your raw cacao powder. Choke down that homemade hot chocolate. Hold your noses if you have to, but get it down and done.

I’m kidding, of course. There’s no arm twisting required when it comes to chocolate. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that the Primal community can suck down some high quality dark chocolate. Don’t think I didn’t see how quickly that chocolate disappeared at last year’s PrimalCon. And why wouldn’t it? Dark chocolate’s great, the perfect storm of flavor, flavonoids, and fat. It tastes really good, comes loaded with polyphenols, and cocoa butter is a great source of saturated and monounsaturated fat. High-cacao dark chocolate, then, is quite literally a healthy candy bar. What’s not to love?

I’ve discussed my favorite dark chocolate in the past. I’ve even provided chocolate-choosing tips. But until today, I’ve never really explained why we should be including high-cacao dark chocolate in our diets. I’ve never explicitly outlined the myriad health benefits that cacao offers. Well, let’s get to it, shall we?

Dark chocolate contains healthy fats.

Cocoa butter, which is extracted from the cacao bean and incorporated into most reputable dark chocolate bars, is mostly monounsaturated and saturated fat, with very little polyunsaturated fat. And because most of that saturated fat is stearic acid, widely known for having neutral effects on LDL, even avowed lipophobes can happily and heartily gobble up cacao fat.

Dark chocolate contains lots of polyphenols, particularly flavanols.

When it comes to polyphenol content and antioxidant capacity, cacao trounces the “superfruits” acai, pomegranate, cranberry, blueberry and whatever else your annoying friend who always falls for multilevel marketing schemes is hawking this week. The most studied polyphenol in cacao is epicatechin, a flavanol. Although last week’s post on the benefits of polyphenol consumption centered on pigment-derived antioxidants, cacao’s polyphenols are also quite potent and potentially healthful.

What happens when the rubber hits the road, though? Or, somewhat more literally, what happens when the square of polyphenol-rich dark chocolate melts on the tongue, is swallowed, digested, and incorporated into the body? What are the actual health benefits of consuming high-cacao content dark chocolate?

Dark chocolate and blood pressure.

Epidemiological studies pretty consistently show that dark chocolate consumption is related to lower blood pressure readings. In Jordan, among Kuna Indians living in Panama, among pregnant women, and among elderly Dutch, this holds true. That’s all well and good, but it’s just an association. We need controlled studies:

One found that fifteen days of eating dark chocolate, but not white chocolate, lowered blood pressure (and improved insulin sensitivity) in healthy subjects. The main difference between white and dark chocolate is the polyphenol content; both types contain cocoa fat. Cocoa consumption also improved arterial flow in smokers.

Some studies suggest that the flavonoids are key. In one, flavanol-rich dark chocolate consumption improved endothelial function while increasing plasma levels of flavanols (which indicates the flavanols had something to do with it). Another study used flavanol-rich cocoa to increase nitric oxide production in healthy humans, thus inducing vasodilation and improving endothelial function. In another, the highest dose of cacao flavanoids caused the biggest drop in blood pressure. Still another found that while dark chocolate did not reduce blood pressure, improve lipids, nor reduce oxidative stress, it did improve coronary circulation.

Or maybe it’s the soluble fiber. In “spontaneously hypertensive” rats, cacao-derived soluble fiber lowered blood pressure, perhaps by reducing weight gain.

It’s probably both, in my opinion, although the polyphenols undoubtedly contribute more to the cause than the five grams or so of soluble fiber you’ll get in the average serving of dark chocolate.

Dark chocolate and cardiovascular disease.

You’ve heard of the cholesterol-fed rabbit; how about the cocoa-fed rabbit? If the former is an effective vehicle to study the negative effects of poor lipid clearance, the latter is a testament to the inhibitory effects of cocoa polyphenols on lipid peroxidation. We also have similar findings in rodents. Feeding hypercholesterolemic and normocholesterolemic rats polyphenol-rich “cocoa fiber” (defatted, sugar-free chocolate, basically) reduced markers of lipid peroxidation in both groups (PDF). It also seems to work quite well in test tubes.

In humans, both with normal and elevated cholesterol levels, eating cocoa powder mixed with hot water lowered oxidized LDL and ApoB (LDL particle number, which, if you remember my post on lipid panels, you want to lower) counts while increasing HDL. All three doses of high-flavanol cocoa powder – 13, 19.5, and 26 g/day – proved beneficial. If you’re wondering, 26 grams of powder is about a quarter cup. It also works if you drink it with milk (and no, Hershey’s syrup doesn’t work the same).

Given the effects of chocolate on lipid peroxidation, we can probably surmise that it will also lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. And indeed, epidemiological studies suggest that this is the case. In a sample of over 2200 patients (PDF), chocolate consumption was inversely associated with progression of atherosclerotic plaque (determined by calcium scoring). What’s incredible is that the association held for chocolate in general, and I don’t think it’s likely that everyone was consuming 100% raw cacao powder brimming with polyphenols. A study from this year from the same group got similar results: chocolate consumption was inversely associated with prevalent cardiovascular disease.

While most cacao research focuses on vascular function and heart disease risk, there are other, less intensively-studied benefits. Here are a few of them:

Dark chocolate and insulin resistance.

For fifteen days, hypertensive, glucose-intolerant patients received either 100 daily grams of high-polyphenol dark chocolate or 100 daily grams of zero-polyphenol white chocolate. Diets were isocaloric, and nothing differed between the groups besides the type of chocolate. Dark chocolate improved beta cell function, lowered blood pressure, increased insulin sensitivity, and improved endothelial function, while white chocolate did none of those things.

Dark chocolate and fatty liver.

Rats with fatty liver evince higher levels of oxidative stress and inflammation, but cocoa supplementation partially attenuated these pathological changes – even in choline-deficient rats. While cocoa wasn’t enough to fully resolve fatty liver, the researchers concluded that cocoa may be of therapeutic benefit in “less severe” forms of fatty liver.

Dark chocolate and UV damage.

Resistance to UV damage is commonly measured by MED – minimal erythema dose. A higher MED means greater resistance to UV rays, while a lower MED indicates lower resistance. High MED, good. Low MED, bad. One study found that feeding high levels of dark chocolate to healthy people over twelve weeks doubled their MED; feeding low levels of dark chocolate had no effect on the MED.

Similarly, another study found that a high-flavanol-from-cacao group had greater resistance to a given UV dosage than a low-flavanol-from-cacao group (who actually saw no benefit at all) over a six and twelve-week period.

Those interested in a fairly comprehensive compendium of chocolate research can check it out here. I tried to stick to in vivo research, but there’s more theoretical stuff out there too.

Seeing as how most of chocolate’s benefits stem from the polyphenol content, and most of the studies that saw large effects used “high-flavanol” dark chocolate, you should be gunning for chocolate with high polyphenol counts. Dutch processed, or alkalized, chocolate lightens the color, removes some of the bitter compounds, and gives it a milder taste. Awesome for Hershey’s Kisses, but awful for the flavanol content. Those “bitter compounds,” you see, are the flavanols. Without the bitterness (which I think of as complexity), you’re missing most of the beneficial polyphenols. It might taste good, but it won’t perform all of the aforementioned physiological tasks. To quantify the extent of the degradation, check out the results of this study on the flavanol contents of cacao powders subjected to various degrees of alkalization:

  • Natural – 34.6 mg/g
  • Lightly processed – 13.8 mg/g
  • Medium processed – 7.8 mg/g
  • Heavily processed – 3.9 mg/g

Once you’ve got a lead on some good chocolate with high cacao and lower sugar levels, eat a few squares a sitting. Exercise restraint, however, as it is still candy and it shouldn’t make up a large block of calories. Treat it like a condiment, or even a medicinal adjunct to an otherwise solid diet. If you’re sensitive to stimulants, avoid chocolate too close to bedtime.

If you get your hands on some high quality cacao powder (raw – which is actually fermented – or roasted, but never Dutch processed), try making coconut cacao milk. Mix half a (BPA-free) can or carton of coconut milk with a couple tablespoons of cacao powder. Heat on the stove until almost simmering. Add sweetener to taste and, if you’re adventurous, a bit of cayenne, cinnamon, and turmeric. Enjoy!

Anyway, that’s it for today. I think I’ve presented the case for high-cacao dark chocolate – not that you were exactly a tough crowd or anything! Thanks for reading and be sure to give your thoughts – including quality sources and recommended methods of ingestion – in the comment section!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Are there any downsides or negative effects of chocolate consumption?

    Lizzie wrote on November 4th, 2012
  2. Has anyone ever heard of Crio Bru? It’s just cacao beans and I guess you French press it. My mother in law buys it and loves it. Just wanted to throw that out there, in case there are some who prefer drinking their chocolate :)

    Gabby wrote on November 4th, 2012
  3. “One thing I don’t get. The paleo crowd jumps all over the phytate anti-nutrient subject with regards to seeds/grains but cocoa powder is loaded with phytates, right? What gives?” Excellent point. Indeed,I was surprised to read that Kuna Indians consume raw cocoa, without any processing which could deplete phytates. Is this proof that beneficial effects of phytates are more imprtant then their negative effects, e.g. antinutrient properties???

    Michal wrote on November 5th, 2012
    • Are the Kuna Indians very healthy and have good teeth? What’s the rest of their diet like?K

      brad wrote on August 4th, 2013
  4. What do you all think about Bakers Chocolate? It’s 100% cacao, 0 sugar. I’ve been eating it straight for years.

    Eric wrote on November 15th, 2012
  5. Just wondering if the benefits described in this article apply in any amount to cocoa powder? I know it’s processed, and I’ve read a bit about Dutch processed vs non Dutch processed cocoas, but my thinking is that even though it’s a powder, it still retains some of the original benefits. I can’t seem to find a consensus on this anywhere. I drink a glass of raw, grass-fed milk from my local farmer every day with a spoonful of unsweetened cocoa and cinnamon mixed in. It’s for the flavor, of course, but it’d be nice to have healthful reasons to back it up :)

    Sarai wrote on November 16th, 2012
  6. Dark chocolate and nuts are packed with minerals. Very mineral dense, in other words. Well functioning kidneys take care of excess minerals in the blood. However, people with decreased kidney function should be extra careful with excess mineral intake. Osteopetrosis, is a disease that causes a hardening (swelling) of the bones, due to an excess of minerals in the lood. This disease is not as well known as Osteporosis, which causes bone mass to become porous.

    Rolf wrote on November 20th, 2012
  7. Can I just use cacao powder in my coffee or tea? And if yes, how much of it?

    Agnese wrote on January 6th, 2013
  8. I just love hersheys dark unsweeted choclate, & someone told me use the orginal because dark does’nt have the same benefits well your article was intriguing I guess i can keep tipping that dark Hershey canister!!!!!!!!!!!! THANKS

    gloria watkins wrote on January 6th, 2013
  9. Regarding “bulletproof cocoa”. When you add powdered cocoa to boiling water you are destroying a good portion of the flavanols in the cocoa.

    Nick T wrote on February 18th, 2013
  10. I buy dark chocolate stuffed with hemp seeds, and sweetened with xylitol only, made by a UK company called Plamil, really nice stuff :)

    James wrote on March 9th, 2013
  11. Mark what about phytic acid in Dark chocolate and your thoughts?

    sting wrote on June 8th, 2013
  12. I think what you stated about Dutching lightening the colour isn’t actually true. From what I gather, the natural unprocessed cocoa powder is namely lighter than the alkali-processed one.

    Andrej wrote on August 30th, 2013
  13. I certainly enjoyed reading your article.

    In Jamaica we make “chocolate tea” (“chahklit tea” in Jamaican vernacular) with 100% chocolate and coconut milk which I make at home from the dry coconut. You can sweeten to taste with condensed milk or dark sugar. We don’t usually use the white refined sugar (or refined products such as bleached flour, bleached cornmeal etc.), because we prefer healthier, more natural products.

    Many farmers grow cacao beans on the family farms, and it is very easy to get the chocolate balls which are home-made and consumed in the ever popular chocolate tea.

    Here are a couple links (2 videos) for preparing chocolate tea:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N661N5IQ-o4
    http://www.cooklikeajamaican.com/chocolate-tea-jamaican-hot-chocolate
    http://www.eatjamaican.com/recipes/chocolate-recipe.html

    Thanks!

    Sandra wrote on September 1st, 2013
  14. I request no more notification on new comments for this subject. Thanks for your co-operation.

    Sean Chan wrote on September 1st, 2013
  15. So are you saying it is okay to have a few squares of dark chocolate each day? I made up my own trail mix of sorts with pecans, macadamia nuts, and 72% dark chocolate squares. I have been feeling very guilty about grabbing a closed handful to get me through that time between afternoon and dinner or breakfast and lunch after a work out.

    Melissa wrote on October 9th, 2013
  16. Today my back and shoulder weren’t stiff and I was alot stronger doing my
    workouts. I thought about what I had eaten differently. The only thing i had different was the new special k with the chocolate in it. I think it is dark chocolate.

    Bobby wrote on November 21st, 2013
  17. I belikeve everything typed was very reasonable.But, consider this, what if yoou added a little
    content? I mean, I don’t wish to tell you how to run your website,
    however suppose you added something to maybe get folk’s attention?
    I mean The Halth Benefits of Dark Chocolate | Mark’s Daily Apple is a
    little vanilla. You could look at Yahoo’s home page and see how they create post titles to get people to opern the links.
    Youu might add a video or a related picture or two to get readers excited about what you’ve written.
    In my opinion, it could bring your posts a little livelier.

    buy green coffee extract pure wrote on November 30th, 2013
  18. I’ve never liked chocolate and would turn it down every time until I tried dark chocolate. Then I found some 90% dark chocolate – WOW! That stuff is good and I’m addicted.

    Gerald wrote on December 10th, 2013
  19. According to this article on the benefits of dark chocolate:

    http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/227564/Chocolate-healthier-than-fruit

    “Only mugs of hot chocolate let the theory down. They have few healthy ingredients because the drink has been processed.”

    What’s your take on this, Mark?

    David wrote on February 10th, 2014
  20. Is Choffy a fair trade product? No one seems to be able to answer that important question.

    Linda Reiner wrote on May 4th, 2014
  21. I have read that even high percentage Cocoa is not the key to really healthy chocolate, but rather high flavanol count. In other words, a dark chocolate bar could have a high cocoa percentage but low flavonals due to processing. Even though, for example, Dove Dark Chocolate is not “exotic” or even really high cocoa, I have read that this is the chocolate used in medicinal studies due to its Cocoapro processing that preserves all the healthy flavonals. Question: Which dark chocolate brands do we know have a high flavonal count, not just high cocoa percentage. thank you much.

    Mark Rossano wrote on July 9th, 2014
    • Any chocolate that is processed with alkali will have much lower levels of flavonols. Dove is one such company that does that but I have also noticed certain bars from Lindt use that process as well. They use alkali to make a smoother chocolate, there was a list on Hershey’s site that showed the level of flavonols between different types of cocoa.

      Nikko wrote on July 9th, 2014

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